Going Memeless – Do civil rights abuses have to be hip to get attention?

I guess it comes down to the obvious answer that “sex sells,” but with the recent arrest of two Vietnamese songwriters, I can’t help but notice the overwhelming silence on social media in stark contrast to the outpouring of support for Pussy Riot.  Okay, I get it.  Mini-dresses on leggy, Russian girls wearing brightly colored balaclavas are hard to beat in the  attention-deficit theater of Facebook and Twitter, but surely the social justice issue is no different in this case.

Last week, the song writers Vo Minh Tri and Tran Vu Anh Binh were sentenced to four and six years in prison, respectively.  Uploading their songs to a website hosted by politically active Vietnamese outside the country, the two were charged with spreading propaganda against the state and faced possible sentences of up to 20 years.

Vo Min Tri, 34, wrote the song “Where is My Vietnam?” featured in the video above. The lyrics criticize the Chinese imperialist influence in his country, and according to some sources, the song was played over 700,000 times on YouTube.

Human Rights Watch has called for the songwriters’ immediate release, and their arrest comes in the wake of the Vietnamese government cracking down on political dissent in other forms. As quoted by AP, Phil Robertson of the  Asia division of Human Rights Watch stated, “First critics, then bloggers, then poets, and now musicians!” The international community can no longer stand by quietly as these free speech activists are picked off one by one by Vietnam’s security apparatus.”

If social media in America is any indication, it seems the international community is more than content to stand by quietly.  But why?  Almost every day, I encounter some proclamation that democratic governments are trying to stifle free speech, and the claim usually comes from some middle-class American or European whose rights are more than intact.  But it really does seem that when we have clear evidence of exactly this kind of oppression, there has to be a hook before it can get much attention.  Admittedly, it’s pretty tough to turn this case into a catchy tweet. #Freevominhtriandtranvuanhbinh doesn’t exactly pop off the stream, and there isn’t any available artwork that’s much better.  So, what’s a political prisoner to do these days, if he can’t be memed?

© 2012, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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8 Responses to Going Memeless – Do civil rights abuses have to be hip to get attention?

  1. Cat Bramhall says:

    Yes. Everything has to be hip to get attention. Hire a marketing consultant.

    I’m not sure this is much of a change, really. You used to have to convince reporters and such that your cause had merit (i.e. was potentially hip). Now you can go right to the people, such as we are.

    • David Newhoff says:

      Cat, you ask the question I ask myself with regard to how much has or hasn’t changed. It’s true that a story has always had to “bleed to lead,” as the saying goes. Still, I can’t help but wonder if social media doesn’t create an illusion of involvement that can obviate the need for engagement. It’s fun, for instance, to post quips during the election returns and get high-fives in the form of “Likes” from my friends, but does time spent doing things like that make us feel actively connected while actually turning every event into a fleeting bumper sticker?

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  3. There is still a lot of support for Ai Wei Wei, despite his detention being long, and disappeared from mainstream news (if it was ever on there).

    Everyone is outraged by the death of Savita Halappanavar.

    It probably helps if you have a name like Pussy Riot, but it’s not compulsory. Is there a petition for Vo Minh Tri and Tran Vu Anh Binh? What can we do to help? You haven’t linked to any actions people can take from this blogpost.

    • David Newhoff says:

      Thanks for commenting, and you make a good point. In fact, at the time I wrote the post, I went looking for a petition or campaign but could not find anything easily shared either from Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Both organizations mention the case and, of course, call for the musicians’ release; but I still haven’t seen a petition or anything like one from any source.

    • ai wei wei had a lot of mainstream coverage, at least in canada. media outlets were falling over themselves trying to get interviews with him. cbc radio plugged this interview with him back in march everywhere they could: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Q/Q+Uncut/ID/2213647183/

  4. insightful post. another conversation that came up a lot in the early days after the KONY 2012 disaster was the idea that social media has made it increasingly easy to give the impression that you are engaged and actively challenging these issues, when sometimes all you did was watch a short viral video and click “like” on a facebook page. it doesn’t mean more people are actually calling elected officials or that more journalists are writing stories. it is a start that it is a bit more present, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem will be resolved.

    personally that concerns me more, because it still feeds into a culture of apathy involving people sitting in front of computer/cell phone screens, and doesn’t valorize the work that community organizers or ngos or whoever is doing to enact change …if i had a dime for every time i saw a “REBLOG IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE!” or “LIKE THIS IF YOU CARE ABOUT HUMANITY” post on tumblr, twitter, or facebook, i’d have enough money to make any cause sexy if i wanted to .

    it’s important to remember though, that this is not simply about marketing – it’s about systemic racism and sexism. we talked about pussy riot ad nauseum because it is easy to demonize the russian government, and because they were young attractive white women. yes, some people used that occasion to point out that we should be fighting to free all kinds of political prisoners, like bradley manning or cece macdonald, but overwhelming these conversations just happen on the fringes.

    • David Newhoff says:

      Thank you for commenting, Julia. I happen to be in the unpopular camp of believing that Bradley Manning isn’t quite the political prisoner people think he is (or that Julian Assange wants us to believe), but you’re right that part of the point of my post is that we do seem to create this veneer of involvement through social media; and I also wonder if the net result is not more apathy.

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